IT'S been a wet year in most of New England, but water officials are still preaching conservation. The metropolitan Boston area is still under a water emergency declaration that was first announced in February. At that time, the Quabbin Reservoir, which supplies water for 2.5 million people in the Greater Boston area, was only 68 percent full. The emergency was extended in August for another six months.
When the emergency was declared, New England was completing a winter of very little snow. Precipitation in Massachusetts ranged from 1.5 to 2 inches below normal, according to climatologist Robert Lautzenheiser.
This concerned officials because most precipitation in the area falls during November to April. Weather forecasts indicated the spring would bring below average rainfall.
A wandering jet stream shifted far north of normal last year, moving the storm track north of New England, according to meteorologist James Wagner of the National Weather Service. The situation was exacerbated by a Bermuda high, an area of high pressure over the Mid-Atlantic which kept coastal storms - New England's famous ``northeasters'' - away from the region.
The situation changed dramatically in May. Suddenly western and central Massachusetts received 5.4 and 2 inches more rain than normal, respectively. The wet weather returned with a vengeance in July and August, with some stations reporting twice the normal amount of precipitation, Mr. Lautzenheiser says.
What happened, Mr. Wagner explains, is that the Bermuda high contracted, allowing warm, moist air to move north up the eastern half of the country. This led to several periods of heavy rain over most of the East.
The heavy rains helped bring the Bay State's Quabbin Reservoir back to 77 percent of capacity, says Leanne DelVecchio of the Metropolitan District Commission. But it is still below its normal level of 87 to 89 percent full.
The precipitation isn't the only thing that brought the reservoir back, says Tony Abruzese of the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. Conservation also played an important role. In March, the MWRA changed the plumbing code to call for toilets that consume only 1.6 gallons of water per flush instead of the previous 3.5 gallons.
Then in May and June, it placed restrictions on homeowners' outdoor water use, banning it between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. An ambitious leak-detection program was continued, and business and other institutions were asked to conserve.
The savings that resulted brought water usage back to about 300 million gallons a day, as called for the system's original design. Previously, water usage had climbed to 350 million gallons per day, far above the level at which the reservoir could replenish itself.
While the water-use restrictions were lifted in August, the emergency decree remains in place. ``Figures show that less-than-normal precipitation could put us in the same position as last spring,'' Mr. Abruzese says. ``So we're still asking people to follow the restrictions.''
``We're cautiously happy about water levels,'' Ms. DelVecchio says. ``But we would still like to see them come up and hope that people will conserve water even though restrictions have been lifted.''
Meanwhile, the Weather Service's Wagner predicts cool fall temperatures over much of the eastern United States. But there's no sign as yet that New England will have other than normal fall temperatures and precipitation.